Writing for SEO or Writing for Humans? The Constant Battle

Somewhere out there, hordes of SEO specialists are screaming at me: writing for Google and writing for humans are not mutually exclusive. If your content is good enough, they will say, then it should serve the purpose of keeping readers happy, and getting a thumbs up from search engines.

But isn’t the quality of writing entirely subjective? We can ‘grade’ our writing using specific prescriptive methods, such as grasp of grammar, breadth of vocabulary, or ability to engage. But can a machine do that?

This week’s #Write52 is inspired by a few frustrations. Times have changed since I was at school, when I would score points for every polysyllabic adjective I used, throwing out metaphors with gay abandon. I’m a copywriter now, and we need to get to the point.

And it would appear that only Google, or the SEO experts that are so beholden to it, are the arbiters of quality.

What does Google define as ‘quality’?

I’ll give you a hint – it’s not sprawling essays churned out by the erudite folks at The Guardian. While to a lowly reader like me, The Guardian is the hallmark of quality – just look at these writers’ vocabulary – these essays aren’t always going to score SEO points. In fact, if we’re going off AI measures alone, they’re scoring no points.

Take this example by Mark Kermode. In my eyes, the man is nothing short of a genius. I first began to appreciate his work when I watched his Sex and the City II review, but his use of language is just…spine-tingling.

Well, not according to the Hemingway App. By these standards, the writing is grade 14. Poor.

For Google, quality is not so much about having a way with words as it is satisfying the user query. It is a search engine, after all, so it somewhat cynically tries to return the best content possible. Answer the question and fuck off. Users are short on time.

Thankfully, quality standards have improved with the introduction of Expertise, Authority and Trust – circumventing the pervasive ‘fake news’ culture and prioritising websites that use genuine sources. Bravo.

The frustrations with writing for SEO

For all its apparent emphasis on quality, Google still has a few tick-box exercises when it comes to writing high-ranking content. Said exercises make traditionalists like me die a little inside. No matter how much I want to write freely, in some cases, SEO caveats dictate that I must do this instead – and that ruins my groove.


I can’t be too critical of Google here. The 2011 Panda update marked the end of some of the most cringeworthy SEO practices out there. If you were looking for a plumber in Leeds, all you’d have to do was consult our list of Leeds plumbers, and before you knew it, you’d have direct access to a plumber in Leeds. Ah, keyword stuffing.

That’s out of the window now, but when we’re tasked with writing SEO content, we’re still somewhat at the mercy of the machines. For example, we might have to rewrite the answers to the ‘people also ask’ section, and awkwardly shoehorn in long-tail questions as our H2s and H3s.

Of course, that’s acceptable in a long-form FAQ guide, but when you’re essentially rephrasing the same question to cover all bases…you start grinding your teeth.

Writing for rich snippets

Ever noticed how Google highlights a piece of text in yellow specific to the question you asked? It’s all part of the latest updates, and it puts more emphasis on certain parts of the article…rather than the whole thing.

In a transactional context, this might be fine. But imagine how heart-breaking it is for a humble writer, beavering away at a 2,000-word article, only for the reader to glimpse at the snippet most relevant to them. When we’re writing this ‘transactional’ content, we’re really writing a series of tiny articles.

Considering user experience

Note that this is quite different from accessibility – I champion any content that is accessible to all readers. If we must rely on technical elements like alt text to offer this, then so be it.

However, with increasing mobile use comes the ever more important consideration for user-centric design. We need to be wary of breaking up the text with headings, bullet points, images…but what about my flow, yo?

Of all three frustrations, this is probably my favourite. I’ve grown quite used to short paragraphs and obstacles within the text. It does indeed make it easier on the eye.

seo dwightWhy is SEO writing disheartening for traditional writers?

As somebody who has transitioned from writing print features to transactional SEO content, I feel a small part of me has been lost. Thank goodness for #Write52 – my weekly opportunity to write how I damn well like, and if it ranks on Google, marvellous. If not…hard cheese.

‘Traditional’ writers might be disheartened by SEO writing because:

  • They want to switch up their vocabulary, rather than introducing X keyword X per cent of the time.
  • People are reading transactional content for just that – to transact – they’re not reading the whole piece.
  • Not every piece has to be there expressly to market your services. It could be there to inform, to entertain…even to serve as a stream of consciousness.

But Google is so much smarter now…good content is SEO content!

Of course, Google has come on in leaps and bounds when it comes to returning the best results. Advancements such as natural language processing are predicting what we’re going to search.

Second, we have latent semantic indexing keywords. Technically speaking, according to Google’s John Mueller, LSI keywords don’t exist.

Dig a little deeper, and you’ll see that latent semantic indexing actually involves a complex mathematical process – looking at polysemic words like ‘bank’ and returning the best result.

In English, Google is smart enough to realise we’re searching for ‘bank’ as in Barclays, rather than the Thames. And we can help Google return better content by using synonyms throughout the article – rather than keyword stuffing.

This supports the above argument that a stronger vocabulary is better. Not only will it delight users; it will also delight Google, right? Well, sort of. Look at the bigger picture.

It’s about user experience

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. Users might click on a page because you’ve ranked in a search. They’ll stay on the page if they like what they’re reading – whether that’s an FAQ on getting your first tattoo, or an essay on why the 80s were the best decade for music. (They were.)

So within this, the task of creating good copy lies not only in having a Shakespearean grasp of words. It’s also a chance to reflect those other digital marketing muscles. To do well in SEO, we need to consider:

  • Schema tagging – showing Google what kind of content it is, and making click-throughs easy for users (such as cinema times)
  • Beating the ads – organic results are dwindling, so we need to harness that page description real estate
  • Writing for design – considering visual elements, and remembering how they impact page speed.

So, should you ‘write for SEO’?

If we’re to believe Google is as smart as us, then by writing well, we are writing for SEO. But if you’re tasked with writing pages that exist only to convert readers, you may have to change tack.

Reasons to ignore SEO

  1. Your writing might not always be transactional. You can still share and get engagement through other platforms, which may lead to transactions long-term!
  2. If you don’t get it right, it might be unreadable. What if you’re told to shoehorn in X keyword X number of times? Is this going to hinder the user experience?
  3. It can be soul-destroying knowing users aren’t reading the whole thing. Hint – to be a writer, you need a thick skin.

Reasons to favour SEO

  1. Return on investment. SEO is by no means a quick win, but it’s a worthwhile investment. High-ranking organic content will push up other metrics like domain authority, creating a snowball effect – if you stay consistent.
  2. Ranking pages go the distance. Assuming no competitor/algorithm change comes along and blows you out of the water, a high-ranking page will serve you in the long term.
  3. SEO allows you to practise other skills. You might be experimenting with design, or adding new rich media. You might even be using SEO tools and watching your rankings.

What about measurement?

You could argue that neither SEO nor simple, unoptimized content are easy to measure. They’re harder to give an ROI, unlike something like PPC.

Instead, we look at other factors. Time spent on page. Bounce rate. Comments or social media shares. Rankings (using third-party tools like Ranktracker). In a way, that puts both under the umbrella of content – harder to measure than other channels, but a hell of a lot of fun.

Why you should do both

It might seem a tall order, but this writer’s advice would be to do both. I use #Write52 to flex my creative muscles and share blog posts simply to be shared – not to convert, not to persuade…not to spur action of any kind. If it leads to a sale, marvellous. It’s art to me, not business.

On the other hand, SEO is an inexorable tool in your overall digital strategy, and should be, at the very least, worked on in the background. Consider user intention – are their enquiries:

  • Informational: “What should I do if my feet hurt while running”
  • Transactional: “Best trainers for runners”
  • Navigational: “Asics Gel Cumulus 19s”.

Having a broad spectrum of content will return results for all three types of queries. Of course, we want our users to convert. But sometimes – we want them to do nothing more than read.

And that’s fine.

Katie Lingo
by Katie Lingo
17th December 2020